Did I remember to make [X crucial appointment] by [Y strict deadline]?
What if I offended [Z person] by saying [ABC possibly clueless thing]?
Am I prepared to completely shift gears if fill-in-the-blank-potential-catastrophe occurs?
These days, what with a recession, tensions around deep-rooted social inequalities and injustice (never mind playing digital pandemic schoolmarm and Googling how to pry codependent pets off of your lap) the past couple of years may have found you overthinking things — and more than a little bit.
For some of us, though, excessively turning stuff over in our minds (even a routine social interaction or no-big-deal tasks) has been a bad habit for a while. The extra stress brought on by current events may have fanned that nagging tendency into an irresistible force that sucks up hours to anxiously analyzing and second-guessing even the most mundane decisions.
According to mental health specialists, those who frequently overthink — a tendency that’s known as rumination in psychology speak — don’t realize how quickly the habit can snowball. What starts out as proofing an email to catch spelling errors can turn into chewing on certain word choices (do I sound bossy? Rude?!) before finally hitting “send”. Then once it’s out there, you play out possible scenarios of how your coworkers will react to your words, working yourself into needless worry. After comes the wave of relief when you open a “Sounds good” reply or one that reads “Thanks for your hard work!” just a few hours later. Why were you even agonizing about it?
Quitting overthinking first requires awareness that you’re devoting too much time and energy to stuff you cannot control and that others are probably not that concerned about. If you’ve landed here, it’s a good start — you’re aware and interested in moving past this tendency, which often doesn’t help anything, makes you more anxious and only saps your time and energy, explains Mimi Winsberg, M.D., the chief medical officer at virtual therapy provider Brightside.
One thing you should know is that you’re far from alone. That’s because overthinking is thought to be hard-wired: Hundreds of years ago, humans used rumination as a way to avoid repeating deadly mistakes, or missing opportunities to collect food in the wild, explains Dr. Winsberg. “These are behaviors that have a purpose in our brains; they help us both survive and succeed,” she says. Now that we have mastered staying alive, our brains still work in the same way, even though the things we need to “survive” are different — and overthinking doesn’t literally keep us alive as it did back in the day. And it’s not always bad: “These days, it can be adaptive to the extent that overthinking helps people stay on track with what’s socially acceptable, to avoid situations that might result in exclusion from groups,” she explains.
But too much thinking can stop you from getting things done, cause you to spin out emotionally, and prompt you to be way too hard on yourself. It can also take you away from what’s happening in the moment and create extra stressors, rather than solving a real problem.
How do I know if I’m overthinking things?
People who overthink things regularly, psychologists believe, are often those who may have larger self-esteem or acceptance issues, Dr. Winsberg explains. If you’re constantly overthinking (more on that later), however, it may be a symptom of clinical anxiety and depression or even obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Overthinking can feel and look different for everyone, and at first, it can be difficult to determine whether you’re just being thoughtful and planning carefully — or veering into rumination.
Here are some ways overthinking and rumination can look:
- You replay things: It can be a conversation, a scene at a social event or a series of events — and you’re watching it on repeat in your head hours to days after it’s occurred. This kind of overthinking may be the most harmful since there’s nothing you can do about something that’s already happened, and there’s only so much you can learn from the experience before you feel plain helpless.
- You obsess over something you need to do: Are you agonizing over an email you have to send? Airline tickets you need to book? Dr. Winsberg compares this to a surgeon who has made all necessary preparations and taken all precautions for a patient on the operating table… but can’t seem to make the first cut. This type of obsession will often delay necessary progress — more often than not, you don’t get much done.
- You are rehearsing something you’re anticipating: This kind of overthinking may be the most common, Dr. Winsberg explains — you believe that working out every single detail in your brain could help things go smoother. For example, you role play a presentation in your head again and again, playing out possible sidetracks or tech glitches. But having too set a plan of how things “should” go makes you tenser, not more relaxed, and may distract you during your presentation from social cues and spontaneous feedback, making your presentation feel less natural and more disconnected.
You get the idea. “These adaptive functions, when taken out of control, can result in a feedback loop that gets overly active and can spin out of control — to the point where it can create dysfunction rather than function,” Dr. Winsberg says, adding that mental health pros draw a clear behavioral distinction between ordinary planning and overthinking. “Oftentimes what determines whether a behavior is adaptive or classified as an illness is what we label, sort of, as interference with social and occupational functioning. In other words, does this behavior interfere with your ability to function in daily life? That’s when it can become problematic,” she adds.
Our list of tips and strategies to address obsessive thoughts is far from exhaustive — and it may not cover obsessing over food and mealtimes, in particular. If you’re overthinking your food choices and find yourself regularly unable to eat, it’s crucial to contact the National Eating Disorder Association’s live hotline at 800-931-2237. You’ll find more resources and a list of qualified care providers in your area from NEDA here. We invite you to learn more about disordered eating here.
How to stop overthinking:
To determine if your overthinking is getting in the way of your daily life, ask yourself:
- Are you often sad or angry about things you can’t change in the past?
- Are people around you frustrated with you due to inaction or inactivity due to your overthinking?
- Do you not do things you’d like to do because you’re afraid of doing it wrong?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, connecting with a mental health care provider may be a good call.
But many people who ruminate can quit overthinking with a few self-taught tricks. With the help of experts, we’ve put together the following tactics:
Be gentle with yourself.
One way to stop overthinking is to simply notice that you’re doing it. Try not to judge it, and don’t put pressure on yourself to repress it.
“Just by saying, ‘I’m noticing that I’m doing this, and I’m okay with it,’ can sometimes, in itself, stop yourself from overthinking,” explains Adrienne Meier, Ph.D., a California-based clinical psychologist. “A cycle that often happens is that people begin to overthink something, then they get angry for noticing they’re doing it, and then they’re thinking depreciating thoughts for doing it. It starts a vicious cycle” that leaves you feeling rotten about yourself, she adds.
It may be the easiest strategy on this list, and the most underutilized. Jumping into another activity before you begin to obsess over a task at hand can be very effective.
“If we’re doing something, and engaging in something, it’s difficult to get wrapped up in our own thoughts,” Meier says. “Things like certain movies, or taking a hot shower, playing an instrument, or even a video game; having to engage your brain can totally change the habit. After all, you can’t really do two things well at once.”
Give yourself a short time to problem-solve.
If you’re feeling anxious about something in the future, it may simply be a sign that you want to prepare a bit more, which is fine. In a calm moment, pick two or three concrete tasks that you can do to prepare (make a list of things to pack, schedule your Uber) and then declare yourself done until it’s truly time to pack and go. If you find yourself revisiting the event in the abstract (“traveling is stressful! I always forget things”), take a deep breath and remind yourself that you’re all set for now.
Reading and re-reading an email or post before hitting send it is an example of this that experts say is quite common, as people worry that they’ll make an embarrassing blunder that others can easily catch. Calmly reread it no more than three times, or give yourself a time limit, for example; 10 minutes to edit and post a picture and caption on Instagram. A time limit can give you the structure to feel in control as opposed to not having one at all.
If you realize that you’re obsessing about something that can’t be changed, simply that recognition may stop you from agonizing over it now. Remind yourself that what’s done is done, and let yourself off the hook, says Meier. “Of course, you can try to address it or improve it [the next time around], but it’s already been said and done,” Meier says.
Ask yourself: Is this something I need to fix now?
Anxious thoughts can come on unexpectedly. Take a deep breath, pause and think about whether anything is truly urgent, Dr. Winsberg advises. “Most of the time, you can take a breath and say: ‘Okay, I’ve registered this as a concern and I’ll deal with that at another time and place,'” she adds.
Choosing to avoid impulse reactions to anxious thoughts can allow you to notice the feeling first (“Oh, I’m feeling anxious“) which keeps you from ruminating. Eventually, you’ll be able to recognize the feeling and just sit with it, without acting on it.
Focus on what you have control over.
Let’s say you’re meeting for a job interview. Overthinking might be a way to try and feel like you have control over it — for you to recite all the possible answers to any question that may arise, which you may feel will be better for your chances. Of course, total control is impossible to have in situations like these, explains Kruti Patel, Ph.D., an Austin-based clinical psychologist.
Rather than focus on what you don’t have total control over, take stock of what you are already in control of. Prepare answers to the basics and then think of two or three things you want them to know about you, no matter what is asked. “Focus on what you can do and say, so you can feel in control of the message,” Patel says. “Internal control is much more predictable than having control over others.” Remember: You can also ask follow-up questions, crack a joke, engage with something they’re sharing by smiling or nodding, and then make sure you convey what you want to convey.
Get a reality check.
Asking a friend or a family member for affirmation or validation about how something was perceived is okay if it’ll save you from hours of self-torture. “You’re gathering information about the situation that happened, and just making sure that didn’t come off in a way that wasn’t intended,” says Dr. Winsberg. Then you can let it go.
I can’t quit overthinking. What now?
If you’re super-anxious, the tactics above may not be able to keep you from overthinking, and you may need to talk to someone to get personalized help. If your tendency to overthink ends up being tied to clinical anxiety or depression disorders, you’ll likely need additional support to overcome this habit, or even medication in treatment. This is especially true if you have been trying for more than six months to keep emotional distress and obsessive thoughts at bay.
To be clear: Overthinking things doesn’t mean you are necessarily experiencing a mental illness, but you may still benefit from talking to someone. It’s crucial to do so if you’re avoiding entire social interactions because you’ll know you’re over-analyze them, or if you’re unable to stop yourself from replaying events in your mind almost every day. “Reach out to a therapist for help, as they’ll be able to understand more about you after some time. It’s also a chance to receive personalized tools that are unique to you,” Patel says.
If you are in crisis or you think you may have an emergency, call your healthcare provider or 911 immediately. For those experiencing suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area at any time.
Let It Go! Quitting These Habits and Obstacles Has Never Been Healthier
This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io